No incident of violence against women in Kerala escapes her gaze. Since the 1980s, Sara Joseph has fought hundreds of cases of crimes against women, which include dowry deaths, trafficking, domestic violence and sexual slavery.

As she glanced through a scribbled, tear-stained letter she received one day in the late 1980s from a young woman at Chelakkara in Thrissur district of Kerala, writer, academic and social activist Sara Joseph felt disturbed. “Help me please. A few men from my community beat me black and blue, paraded me naked on the streets and raped me for rubbishing their claims in a land dispute. Save me,” the woman had pleaded.

Sara and her colleagues in Manushi, a women's group she founded at the Sankrit College in Pattambi where she taught Malayalam and literature, rushed to Chelakkara, took on the alleged offenders, secured legal protection for the girl and whisked her away to a safe place.

Manushi

Led by Sara, Manushi, which zealously chose to tread the thorny path of issue-based advocacy, fought hundreds of cases of crimes against women, including dowry deaths, trafficking, domestic violence and sexual slavery.

Since the 1980s, no incident of violent oppression of women reported in Kerala has escaped her gimlet gaze. Her voice of protest has been heard loud and clear against any violation of women's honour and dignity. Her fiery words and thoughtful intervention have amplified the cries for justice in the Thankamani incident (mass rape of women by policemen in the remote hill village of Thankamani); Suryanelli case (continual rape of a 16-year-old girl for 40 days by 42 men); Vithura case (alleged rape of a minor repeatedly after trafficking her to different parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu); Kiliroor case (alleged victimisation of a girl through the casting couch); Kaviyoor case (suicide by a family of five following a sex scandal); Kothamangalam case (sexual abuse of a minor by more than 100 persons, 43 of whom were identified by the police); and the ice-cream parlour case (use of an ice-cream parlour in Kozhikode to lure girls for alleged sexual exploitation).

Waging campaigns against offenders, especially the bigwigs among them, can, of course, be risky. Her bid to expose the aggressors in the ice-cream parlour case elicited threatening phone calls and hostile missives. None of these, however, quelled the fire in her.

“The work of Manushi and other feminist groups in the past three decades has enhanced the status of women in Kerala, challenged rigid moral codes, furthered gender equality and found space in society for alternative sexualities. Much more remains to be achieved,” she says.

She knows that the condition of women in Kerala represents a paradox.

In Kerala, women's literacy rate is 88 per cent, life expectancy is 72.4 years, Gender Equality Index is high at 0.83 and Human Development Index is 0.59. But the State has the lowest number of women involved in labour force. The proportion of rural women employed in the primary sectors is low. Also, atrocities against women are on the rise. In 2010, as many as 10,781 cases of crimes against women were registered in police stations in Kerala.

“When we started out, Kerala's political world did not recognise the need for a feminist movement. Feminism was dubbed a dirty word. Leftists unleashed the severest criticism. Though a Marxist by conviction, I was not spared by them. The Left realised the importance of the movement much later,” she says.

Literary works

Her engagement with social and political causes has infused rare power into her literary works.

She, along with writers Ashitha, Chandramathi, Gracy, P. Geetha and A.S. Priya, has carried forward a movement in Malayalam, nurtured by the likes of Lalithambika Antharjanam and Madhavikutty (Kamala Suraiya) that sought to express a distinctive female consciousness.

Sara argues that women should write with a greater consciousness of their bodies. She points out that the deepest problem lies in the language itself with words having been coined to convey a male point of view. She has, thus, sought to create a woman-centric vocabulary.

Such new writings that emerged in Malayalam, especially Papathara, a collection of stories penned by Joseph, had inspired critic and poet K. Satchidanandan to coin the word, “Pennezhuthu”, an equivalent of Écriture feminine (writing seen as a feminist concept, in which the author uses female constructions of identity).

Papathara won the Muttathu Varkey Award this year. Her trilogy of novels, Aalahayude Penmakkal (won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Vayalar Award), Mattathi and Othappu, expands the feminist discourse on sexuality, moral codes and social hypocrisy.

Othappu (meaning outrage or scandal), about a nun who leaves a convent and lives with a man she loves, and Ramayana Kathakal, a subversive reading of the Ramayana, have been translated into English. Othappu questions some of the beliefs and practices in the Christian world and checks out how organised religion deals with sexuality.

Moving on

The movement she represents has travelled from exclusive feminine concerns to wider issues of gender in social and cultural contexts. It has examined how gender stereotyping arises in society. It has studied patriarchy vis-à-vis capitalism and globalisation. It has also embraced the changes in feminism across the globe in response to current circumstances.

Madhavikutty and Sara had something in common other than their literary camaraderie. Both were married off at the age of 15. “Getting married meant being submissive to a stranger. In a conservative Christian family, a girl has no voice. I did not slip into depression as I could continue my studies. My activism has stemmed from my experiences,” she recalls.

So tenuous is the line between the writer and the activist in her life that it is difficult to trace. And she does not bother to.

“Health problems sometimes make me think that the activist in me should slow down a little and entrust the younger generation of activists with the task,” she says.

A letter or a call from a hapless woman victim seeking help, however, makes her banish the thought. And the 65-year-old activist is back in action.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012